Hill, Charles A. and Helmers, Marguerite (Eds.). Defining Visual Rhetorics.
The traditional domain of rhetorical criticism excludes nearly all forms of discourse save the public address of famous speakers. Throughout the 20th century the field stubbornly ignored the challenge presented by new media as outside its purview; while the rules governing neo-Aristotelian criticism were so narrowly drawn that the approach typically yielded staid and predicable results. After World War I rhetorical studies became something of an anachronism and fell from its eminent position in the liberal arts curriculum. Wartime propagandists had discovered the power of images and changed the nature of persuasion: A world of irrational Freudian dreamscapes gained ascendancy over the word and reason.
Today the lingering question of the rhetorical tradition's relevance to image-based communication is as open and contentious as ever: Is a conceptual framework designed to gauge the spoken word adaptable to visual persuasion?
Defining Visual Rhetorics may be read as a ramshackle attempt to answer this question. While this collection of 14 essays contains several useful lines of inquiry (and a handful of interesting historical facts about rhetoric, art, and the mass media), finding these bits exacts a toll. The level of analysis and the writing quality is uneven; the least compelling pieces read like half-baked graduate school assignments. The major demerit, however, is that the book doesn't deliver what the title, Defining Visual Rhetorics, seems to promise: some sort of methodological engagement with the rhetorical tradition and the psychology (or physiology) of perception. (Notable exceptions are the opening and closing chapters: "The Psychology of Rhetorical Images" by Charles A. Hill, and "Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of Rhetorical Theory" by Sonja K. Foss.) Only three or four of the essays have anything to do with rhetoric. The use of the term rhetoric in many of the pieces is akin to sprinkling curry over cafeteria food and calling it Indian cuisine.
Defining Visual Rhetorics thus raises a fundamental question: What is gained by wedding the term "rhetoric" (or some variation) to "visual" to label an artifact or describe a critical stance--particularly if these terms are so fluid? The editors provide this explanation:
[When] we thought about the definitional problems surrounding the study of visual rhetoric, it became immediately clear that the appropriate response was not to try to 'nail down' the term. ... Rather, we thought that it would be more interesting and productive to have scholars working with visuals discuss the definitional assumptions behind their own work, and to exemplify these assumptions by sharing their own rhetorical analyses of visual phenomena. (p. x)
"Interesting"? "Productive"? How so?--instead of methodological rigor and coherence the reader finds a pastiche of definitions, from the turgid to the facile. These definitions essentially serve to include or exclude a particular critical activity from one camp or another. For example, in "Framing the Fine Arts Through Rhetoric," Marguerite Helmers writes that
the images rhetoricians study are not limited to the Western canon of the fine arts as are the images offered through the Sister Arts tradition, but range through some of the more popular arts such as advertisements, printmaking, and photography ... visual rhetoricians consider the temporal and spatial implications of context: the ways in which the meaning of a single image can alter dramatically due to placement, context, cropping, and captioning. (p. 64)
But what exactly is the point of such territorial decrees? Does writing a critical essay on printmaking make a person a rhetorician, visual or otherwise? Is noting the "temporal and spatial implications of context" [doesn't "context" imply space and time?] part of a recipe that all "visual rhetoricians" must follow? Does understanding how the placement, cropping, and captioning of photos twists their meaning make newspaper editors visual rhetoricians by default? Thus the question of rules and territory teeters towards meaninglessness in a broadened conception of rhetorical criticism because the potential field of objects includes every imaginable artifact, from perfume bottles to presidential addresses. So what sets the essays in Defining Visual Rhetorics apart from any of the thousands of writings flying under different flags?
The book's implied claim is that the use of a particular conceptual frame--"rhetorics"--permits, if not a deeper analysis, then at least observation of the artifact from a fresh perspective. Fine and well. This is precisely the test of a concept's utility: Does it enable us to "see" something we would have missed without its aid? (This has always been the crux for the entire field of rhetorical criticism: Are critical insights the result of the conceptual framework used or the sensitivity, intelligence, and writing skill of the critic?) And herein lies the primary shortcoming of Defining Visual Rhetorics: The analyses it presents--artifacts include needlework, Hitchcock's Vertigo, statistical atlases, an 18th century oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, Farm Security Administration photographs of rural poverty--don't reveal anything not visible to the naked eye. What passes for analysis in most chapters are lengthy descriptions of artifacts, as if each were being catalogued. (Certainly description is a vital part of rhetorical criticism; but if it doesn't lead to analytical penetration, it becomes an exercise in minutiae.) Whatever illumination the reader might receive does not come from peering through some skillfully-fashioned conceptual lens--or "definition" as the editors would have it.
Ultimately, however, definitions lie outside the subject matter. The chief problem new or hybrid disciplines face is demonstrating their worth through an exemplary piece of work. The closest thing Defining Visual Rhetorics contains to such an exemplar is the chapter by Sonja Foss, "Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of Rhetorical Theory." The most interesting and useful passages summarize the methodological framework for visual rhetoric Foss put forth in a journal article 10 years ago ("A Rhetorical Schema for the Evaluation of Visual Imagery" in Communication Studies 45 (1994): 213-224). Rooted in the rhetorical tradition, Foss's framework combines both methodological strength and suppleness. It provides ample play for individual creativity and the incorporation of interdisciplinary elements.
Foss's schema is built upon three pillars, nature, function, and evaluation. "Nature" is the analytical base and "deals with the components, qualities, and characteristics of visual artifacts" (p. 307). In describing these, the critic attends to two primary components, "presented elements" and "suggested elements":
Identification of the presented elements of an artifact involves naming its major physical features, such as space, medium, and color. Identification of the suggested elements is a process of discovering the concepts, ideas, themes, and allusions that a viewer is likely to infer from the presented elements; for example, the ornate gold leafing found on Baroque buildings might suggest wealth, privilege, and power (Kanengieter 12-13). Analysis of the presented and suggested elements engenders an understanding of the primary communicative elements of an image and, consequently, of the meanings an image is likely to have for audiences. (p. 307)
This descriptive groundwork is significant because it provides a means for harnessing the power--while revitalizing--2,500 years of rhetorical tradition. Detailing an artifact's manifest and latent elements permits the critic to achieve analytical profundity by translating traditional rhetorical concepts into forms applicable to visual rhetoric, thereby expanding the reach of rhetorical criticism. Adapting
elements such as metaphor, argument, enthymeme, ethos, evidence, narrative, and stasis ... push rhetorical theory to deal with an entirely new set of visual constructs, such as color, space, texture, and vectoriality. A rhetorical theory once restricted to linear linguistic symbols thus explodes into one characterized by multidimensionality, dynamism, and complexity as visual units of meaning are taken into account in rhetorical theory. (p. 308)
The two remaining pillars in Foss' critical framework, function and evaluation, are derived from traditional perspectives yet also lend themselves to expanding the rhetorical tradition: "function concerns the communicative effects of visual rhetoric on audiences; and evaluation is the process of assessing visual artifacts" (p. 307). But it is unclear, says Foss, as to how traditional criteria of message effectiveness might be "applied to visual rhetoric that is non-representational and perhaps baffling for audience members" (p. 310).
However, it seems clear that whatever visual rhetoric might be, above all it is interdisciplinary. (Perhaps the most interesting implications for the investigation of visual communication derive from Gestalt psychology and neurophysiology.) Hence, the importance of pushing boundaries to incorporate scientific discoveries in the methodological framework in order to test the efficacy of rhetorical concepts in the visual dimension. The opening chapter of Defining Visual Rhetorics, "The Psychology of Rhetorical Images" by Charles A. Hill, offers an example of how this might be done by suggesting that the concept of presence (as discussed by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca) is adaptable to visual imagery. Readers who care about widening the horizon of rhetorical criticism to include visual artifacts may find Defining Visual Rhetorics mildly useful.
The book features both an author index and a subject index. There is no bibliography; however, each contribution has its own reference list.
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|Publication:||Communication Research Trends|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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